Isaac van der Merwe piano

SYMPHONY CONCERT. 20 June 2024. At The Cape Town City Hall. CPO conducted by Bernhard Gueller, soloist Isaac van der Merwe; Grieg: Holberg Suite, Op. 40; Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 15; Dvorak: Symphony No 7 in D minor, Op. 70. DEON IRISH reviews.

Continuing what has been a very successful Winter Season, this concert featured a winning suite for strings, one of the most popular and frequently performed piano concertos, and a symphony by a composer who is probably not so much a Czech “nationalist”, as merely speaking with a pronounced Bohemian accent.

Indeed, the juxtaposition of Grieg and Dvorak on the programme served to underscore this point. Both wrote a good many works – indeed, a significant part of their respective outputs – which are self-evidently and unashamedly inspired by, or celebratory of their countries of origin.

In the case of Grieg, despite his international exposure (he studied at the Leipzig Conservatory and spent some formative years in Copenhagen), he fell under the influence of Rikard Nordraak, who had emerged as the progenitor of a Norwegian national school, which was – as was often the case – allied to a political movement for the establishment or, in some cases, regaining of an independent nationalist state. His earlier nationalist period lasted until the late 1870’s, after which a burgeoning international career was reflected in a more cosmopolitan collection of works, before the heightened movement for independence in the 90’s once again drew him in.

A nationalist spectrum

The Kingdom of Bohemia within the Habsburg domains was, in Dvorak’s formative years, somewhat less overtly secessionist and more nearly concerned with the promotion of Czech language and culture. Dvorak’s nationalism was accordingly less tied to a political movement than was Grieg’s, with Norway attaining independence from Sweden as early as 1905. The Czech Republic only evolved in consequence of the post-Great War breakup of the Habsburg Empire.

In this broad context, we can place the works on offer at this concert on something of a nationalist spectrum. The Holberg Suite dates from Grieg’s intermediate years – in this case 1884 – but, having been commissioned for the bicentenary celebrations of Baron Holberg, the Norwegian playwright and author, cannot escape being regarded as a “nationalist” work; whilst the piano concerto, with its obvious indebtedness to that of the much-admired Schumann, dates from a summer holiday in Denmark and is less obviously inspired by folk music – other than for its jaunty finale.

By way of contrast, Dvorak’s 7th symphony – arguably his finest in terms of its abstract musical conception – is (as was deliberately intended) very international in character. It was written for the London Philharmonic Society, of which he had become an honorary member, and was more immediately inspired by Brahms’ 3rd Symphony, the premiere of which Dvorak had attended in December 1883.

Bernhard Gueller: Big Symphonies

Exemplary account

Gueller’s account of the opening Holberg Suite was, in a word, exemplary. Playing with a sensibly reduced string band, he achieved a performance that ranks amongst the finest I have heard. This is a suite which is played often and by many combinations of players; yet rarely does one experience the architecture of the work so crisply delineated by means of altered dynamic, attack, phrasing, tempo or articulation.

Add to this the sheer physicality of much of the playing – particularly in the Rigaudon – an you have a work that is always in danger of runaway ensemble. However – and very much to the credit of the players involved – there appeared nary a moment of ill-discipline or of departure from a unified utterance. Just magic!

Then came the same composer’s only piano concerto. (He did commence another in response to a publisher’s commission, but it was never completed.) On this occasion we heard the young South African pianist, Isaac van der Merwe, who is making something of a name for himself countrywide as a pianist of exceptional promise.

On this outing, one can understand why; he has technique aplenty, lovely musical insight and a seemingly imperturbable demeanour in the manner in which he interacts with both conductor and fellow musicians. This was perhaps most apparent in the jaunty finale of the work, based on a Norwegian folk song but which always puts me in mind of Snow White’s seven dwarfs, marching off in Disney fashion to a nearby mine. Van der Merwe caught the sheer good humour of the writing with a display of assured fingerwork and brilliant tonal projection.

Serene opening

In the central adagio he fared almost as well, following a quite gorgeous account of the serene opening by Gueller and the orchestra. (This really has to be one of the finest introductions to a movement in the entire concerto repertoire. Not to mention the telling effect of that flattened note in the repeated horn phrase.) Playing was lyrical – even idyllic; and he showed a lovely musicality in resisting the temptation to showcase the piano role, in favour of a more restrained account that provided lovely integration with the gentle accompaniment.

The opening movement was perhaps less convincing. That abrupt piano declamation sounded a little brittle, with a fluffed delivery of the plunging octaves. I put this down to a slightly nervous commencement of the work, which would settle down once things got going; but the same octave passage was fluffed once again on its later reappearance in the cadenza, leading one to believe that the problem was not merely transitory, but rather an issue of placement in the higher registers.

A pity, for much of the movement exhilarated in its bold approach and sure sense of ensemble with the orchestra, Gueller providing an assured but always sympathetic accompaniment.

After interval, we heard a very fine account of Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony. If the opening movement was indeed very Brahmsian – particularly in its orchestral colours – the succeeding slow movement was much more nearly the composer of “Rusalka”, all dreamy moonlight and rippling lake waters – despite the shadows cast by an indifferent horn solo.

The scherzo was given a brilliant reading, the central trio altogether slighter in texture and emotional profile. But the real acclaim was left for last – a finale in which the somewhat darker introduction was treated as if a gorgeous bloom gradually opening until the real matter of the movement burst out in bristling and tautly sinewed phrasing, richly executed passage work and fine integration between all sections of the orchestra. The trumpets, in particular, impressed with discreet, punctuating fanfares.

The second subject was treated with a lovely, moving lyricism (I always wonder whether the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” might have been based on this theme) but the real fire was kept for the fiery D major coda, which brought the performance and the concert to a tumultuous end.

Who: CPO with Isaac van der Merwe (Top picture)
Reviewer: Deon Irish